Shrinking the field: Willie Gay Jr. is doing more than people might realize.
Looking at how Gay has helped improve a very specific weakness teams were exploiting earlier in the season.
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The Chiefs defense is going to be an extremely hot topic over the bye week. That makes sense, considering the way this season has gone.
You all know the story at this point. Through the first 5 weeks of the year, Kansas City’s defense had difficulty stopping anyone, ranking last in a variety of terrible-sounding stats that made people sad every time they talked about it. There were a variety of questions about the personnel choices being made, health/performance of other players, and number of other issues that led to a lot of articles being written (including by me) trying to figure out the biggest problems on defense.
Then they had a strong performance against the Washington Football Team, where there was a bit of a shakeup in personnel on the back end that received a lot of attention. All that fell apart after a dismantling at the hands of the Titans, and it felt like it was a “2 steps forward, 3 steps back” situation.
Since that time, though, the defense has been nails against both the pass and the run.
In games against the Giants, Packers, Raiders, and Cowboys, the defense has been largely the star of the show (absent against the Raiders, where Patrick Mahomes and offense were basically burning Vegas to the ground as well). They’ve looked like a different team in many ways, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch.
So what has happened? Well, a lot of things. There’s no “one” reason a defense begins to start seeing such drastically different results. One of the most important issues is that the pass rush, led by Chris Jones, has been significantly better over the last month due in part to the arrival of Melvin Ingram and in part to Frank Clark playing at a significantly higher level once he got healthy (as well as other contributors like Jarran Reed and Tershawn Wharton stepping up).
However, it’s not just the pass rush that’s improved. One area of the defense getting better wouldn’t account for such a big gap in performance. Instead, it’s been a bunch of small things across the board. Playing Juan Thornhill over Dan Sorensen has increased their speed on the back end and helped close off big plays. The cornerback group getting healthy and starting to play with better communication (and sticking with the starting trio of L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and Charvarius Ward) has led to fewer blown coverages. The run defense has played significantly better with more snaps from rookie Nick Bolton and second-year man Willie Gay Jr.
Gay is a player I want to focus on today, because his particular skillset jumped out against the Cowboys in a way that goes directly towards a week spot the Chiefs showed earlier this season.
When Kansas City faced the Eagles earlier in the season, the defense was torched to the tune of 358 passing yards by Jalen Hurts. It was an embarrassing performance, not so much due to the fact that they gave up that many yards, but how it happened. As I wrote about following the game, Hurts had to make very few difficult reads or throws throughout the game. One of two primary reasons for this (the other being miscommunication, which has been much sharper recently) is that the Eagles were able to beat the Chiefs on short throws to the perimeter snap after snap.
These types of throws to the flat, whether to TE’s or RB’s or on bootlegs or simply checkdowns, have haunted the Chiefs in recent seasons. While there are a variety of potential reasons for this, one of the primary issues is that they’ve lacked the speed at the intermediate level to cover the middle of the field and close on the flat.
With that in mind, it’s time to talk about Willie Gay Jr. Because the second year linebacker has been one of the primary solutions to this problem. And that, along with many other small things, is part of the defensive turnaround we’re seeing from the Chiefs. I’ve talked about how good Gay has been this year previously, but right now I want to talk about the Dallas game specifically and how Gay was able to help remove an option the Cowboys thought they would have.
There are 3 examples throughout the game of this, the first coming with 5:03 remaining in the first quarter. The Chiefs held a 9-0 lead but had missed an extra point and failed to capitalize on an early turnover with a touchdown, so there was an opportunity for Dallas to get back into the game after a disastrous start. After a solid drive, they faced 1st and 10 on the Chiefs’ 15-yard-line.
The Chiefs’ coverage did a nice job closing down Prescott’s first option and he had to get the ball out quickly due to some push up front, so he checked down hoping to grab some cheap yardage. But Gay wasn’t having it.
This is a fairly basic coverage for Gay, as he appears to just be in man on Elliot out of the backfield. However, Elliot’s route is designed to get him horizontal and running away from the linebacker to help get an angle to turn up the field. But Gay’s easy closing speed is apparent here.
Even having to slow down the a route designed to keep him off course, Gay’s able to meet Elliot as soon as the ball is delivered. And it’s worth noting that Gay isn’t just a guy who gets there fast, as he finishes the play strong against a powerful runner and drags him out of bounds without any forward momentum. The play ended with a stuff of 2 yards, and the Cowboys ended up kicking a field goal a few snaps later (it’s worth noting on 2nd and 8 Gay had a nice run stop to set up 3rd down, but I digress).
This is the sort of play the Chiefs have struggled on in recent years to not get behind the sticks early. Had Gay not played it as well as he did, 2nd down becomes 2nd and 5 or 2nd and 4 and the playbook opens up, OR Elliot ends up in space against secondary players out of position. Instead, it was a win for the defense.
The very next drive, Gay shut down a play with a similar idea, but differently executed. The Chiefs were now up 16-3 and the Cowboys desperately needed a spark of some sort. On the first play of the drive, they went with a concept designed to stress the Chiefs’ defense on the perimeter in a way that had been wildly successful for teams earlier in the year.
This is a nice-looking play. Dak utilizes a play action rollout to protect him from the Chiefs’ pass rush and get the defense moving the wrong direction. The tight end goes from the flat into space to drag the cornerback with him, and the fullback fakes a block of Ingram and then leaks into the flat to ideally take advantage of the space created by the tight end and the confusion created by play action.
It’s a good design that attacks an area the Chiefs have gotten destroyed this season, and it’s no surprise this is the play call on a snap they need a positive play. It has every reason to work well. And really, for a moment it looks like it will. Gay takes a step towards the play action and everything starts to unfold as the Cowboys drew it up. The problem for them is that Gay recognizes what is happening and is able to stop/plant/turn in one smooth movement to change it into pursuit.
At this moment, the Cowboys still have a bit of an advantage with the fullback having a head start to the sideline. However, that advantage gets erased quickly, as Gay’s exceptional closing speed once again allows him to chew up yardage and beat the receiver to the spot. Gay arrives as the ball gets there, stays under control (an underrated aspect to closing speed is the ability to get there without having to abandon your ability to break down and hit), and knocks the fullback out of bounds.
A concept that was well-scouted and well-executed, rather than getting them the yards they badly needed on a drive that was of utmost importance, resulted in a 2-yard gain and Dallas being back to behind the sticks. We’ll get to the bigger picture portion later, but first let’s cover the final snap that caught my eye.
The third and most important of the plays Gay made of this sort came late in the 3rd quarter. The Cowboys were trailing 16-6, but the Chiefs’ offense had repeatedly shot itself in the foot and Dallas still had a chance to get back into the game with a good drive. On 3rd down with 2 yards to go, they had to call a “gotta have it” play, and (again) called a concept that has worked repeatedly against the Chiefs this year (and in previous years). The basic premise is get the RB into the flat quickly with a rub route slowing down the linebacker. And once again, Gay’s superb athleticism (and improved recognition) ruined it.
There’s a lot to love here. First, watch how Gay starts off moving over the top of the route. That’s precisely what this play call counts on. Gay recognizes what is happening and is able to pivot inside and accelerate so fast that the rub route can’t get in his way without getting an obvious interference call.
At that point, though, he’s still in a tough spot with Elliot already moving towards the sideline and only 2 yards needed for a first down. Gay has to be able to close at a tremendous rate and make a strong tackle in space against one of the more powerful runners in the league. And he executes it perfectly to stuff the play for no gain. The Cowboys punted, and their chance to come back shrank considerably.
These three plays only show up as a tackle in the box score, but they were significantly more impactful on the game than a run-of-the-mill tackle 5 yards down the field or more. Not only did they set the Cowboys back on down and distance on several important drives, but the final play was part of a series of plays (see Jones, Chris) that eliminated all chance of Dallas coming back.
Perhaps even more importantly for the long term, it was the Chiefs (through Gay) snuffing out a type of play that has haunted them on important downs for years. Dallas was running stuff that made sense based on what has worked in the past. Now teams, when they got to the film, will have to seriously reconsider whether they can run these sort of concepts successfully with Gay on the field.
Shrinking options for offenses is one of the best things players can do with singular talent (ie Jones making it tough for teams to run empty protections for fear of him beating a 1x1 quickly, Mathieu shutting down the middle of the field by being a superb robber, or Thornhill helping close off deep passing lanes). Gay has shown that he can do precisely that, and in an area it has been desperately needed. It’s just another “small” area the Chiefs have taken a step forward on defense. And when you improve in multiple small areas, the change can be something much greater than the sum of the parts.
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